Esoteric Energy Systems: Kundalini Yoga, Taoist Alchemy, and the Pineal Gland
The inquiry is not to be approached in a spirit of conquest or arrogance with the intent to achieve victory over a force of nature, which has characterized man's approach to the problems of the material world, but rather with humility, in a spirit of utter surrender to Divine Will and absolute dependence on Divine Mercy, in the same frame of mind one would approach the flaming sun.
There is no other way save this open to man to arrive at the solution of an otherwise impenetrable mystery of creation, no other way open to him to find out what path has been aligned for his progress by nature, no other way for him to know and recognize himself, and no other way to save himself from the awful consequence of conscious or unconscious violation of the mighty laws which rule his destiny.
This is the only method to bridge the gulf at present yawning between science and religion, between warring political ambitions and idealogies, more deadly than the most virulent disease and more awful than all the epidemics combined, between religious faiths, races, nations, classes, and finally between men.
This is the immortal light, held aloft by nature from time immemorial to guide the faltering footsteps of erring humanity across the turns and twists, ups and downs, of the winding path of evolution, the light which shone in the prophets and sages of antiquity, which continues to shine in the men of genius and seers of today, and will continue to shine for all eternity, illuminating the vast amphitheatre of the universe for the marvellous, unending play of the eternal, almighty, queen of creation, life.
~ Gopi Krishna, Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man, 250.
Traditions of Esoteric Energy Systems
Many spiritual traditions, particularly those of the East, have attempted to create synthesized systems that incorporate aspects of biological fact and aspects of religious belief regarding “subtle” or “astral” bodies into a functional system of medicine and health. The most well known of these today is the Chinese tradition of acupuncture, qi, and energetic meridians. Also well known are the systems of chakras and pranas in Hindu Ayurvedic medicine. Both of these remarkably comprehensive and detailed systems predate what we would consider modern medicine, and both Eastern systems are still being used today. The basic, yet extremely important, distinction between Ayurveda and Chinese medicine and contemporary Western medicine is that the theoretical system of Western medicine does not include a component of energy in the human being beyond what is materially visible in the body and its electrochemical reactions.
Both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine are based on the theoretical premise that there is an energy component of the human body that transcends, yet is intimately linked to, the physical body. In Ayurveda and Kundalini yoga the idea is that prana, (which can be though of literally as breath, but also metaphorically as life energy) flows through energy centers called chakras and nadis points or nadirs, and that health is based to a large degree on the proper flow of prana through the body (1). Yogic exercises are used to promote the healthy flow of prana. In Chinese medicine we also find the idea that there is a non-physical energy component of the human body, which they call qi, that can be regulated by acupuncture and exercises like martial arts and Qigong (2). Both of these traditions, whether in Tantric ritual texts or in Taoist scripture, teach that this spiritual energy (which may or may not be easily equated with literal internal and sexual fluids) must be conserved for the spiritual development and health of the individual (3).
Intriguingly, both of these spiritual medicine systems also focus on parts of the head -- particularly the space between and slightly above the eyes, and the place at the top of the head -- as focal points of these “subtle energies.” Modern anatomical science has located the mysterious pineal gland as being close to the center of the brain, making it the gland nearest in proximity to the top of the head (4). The pituitary gland is nearest to the location of what has been iconographically identified as the “third eye” in Hindu traditions (5). By investigating these physical and energetic locations described in religious texts as a basis of comparison we may analyze and compare these Eastern medicine systems with known facts about human neurobiology to see what connections may be found.
This type of inquiry has been complicated in contemporary scholarship by the complexity of everyday cultural exchanges (including misunderstandings and appropriations) which occur at various levels of social and religious communication. Ancient religious traditions have come to be interpreted and re-expressed through various critical lenses of modern theory: psychology, sociology, phenomenology, history, etc. The views of science on ancient religions may or may not be valid; it could be that a phenomenon such as mystical Taoism cannot be fully understood or defined by the protocols of scientific analysis. Some “new religious movement” or New Age groups have also complicated things by adopting parts of these ancient traditions into highly syncretic forms which do not always resemble the historical religious practices that the contemporary practices are based in.
One result of this, in a somewhat ironic way, is that the original practices (as practiced by people in the lineage of that tradition) are sometimes changed and re-interpreted based on the influence of modern scholarship and religious syncretism as mentioned. This is important to keep in mind when studying a tradition like Kundalini yoga, which has been popularized, reinterpreted, and sometimes misunderstood, in the West over the past half-century. However, to the academic, along with this caveat should also come the challenge of interpretation and comparison: that we can attempt to understand another culture's religious beliefs and practices by a careful study, by making relevant comparisons, and orienting religious information within a larger sphere of contemporary knowledge.
Kundalini yoga is a term referring to a set of ritual practices mainly in Tantric Hinduism, involving a set of physically based meditation exercises designed to utilize the human body as a means of spiritual enlightenment. Kundalini yoga is a form of laya yoga as described in the Yogatattva Upanishad (6). Mary Scott writes in The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value, “Tantric science and therefore also its yoga was, and still is, a body-affirming system. Unlike yogas advocating its denial and seeing bliss and enlightenment as involving the transcendence of physical limitations, the Tantric yogi seeks to raise up the quality of natural forces so that enlightened states can be [experienced] within the body” (Scott, 2). The culmination of this practice is the ability to move the Kundalini energy (a form of shakti) “coiled” at the base of the spine upwards through the seven, or twelve major chakras and eventually up and out of the body through the “crown” at the top of the head. This process is an extreme physical and energetic act which, if not properly guided, can produce disastrous physical and mental results, sometimes causing a state resembling psychosis (7). But according to the Tantric texts, with proper preparation and the support of a guru, the flow of Kundalini force through the chakras can lead to supreme bliss and mystical revelatory experience (8).
Kundalini yoga was popularized in the West largely by contemporary Hindu mystics such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and Gopi Krishna. In his 1970 autobiography, Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man, Gopi Krishna describes his own initial energetic awakening which occurred after sustained meditation:
I had read glowing accounts, written by learned men, of great benefits resulting from concentration, and of the miraculous powers acquired by yogis through such exercises. My heart began to beat wildly, and I found it difficult to bring my attention to the required degree of fixity. After a while I grew composed and was soon as deep in meditation as before. When completely immersed I again experienced the sensation, but this time, instead of allowing my mind to leave the point where I had fixed it, I maintained a rigidity of attention throughout. The sensation again extended upwards, growing in intensity, and I felt myself wavering; but with a great effort I kept my attention centered round the lotus. Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid light entering my brain through the spinal cord.
Entirely unprepared for such a development, I was completely taken by surprise; but regaining self- control instantaneously, I remained sitting in the same posture, keeping my mind on the point of concentration. The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring louder, I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt myself slipping out of my body, entirely enveloped in a halo of light. It is impossible to describe the experience accurately. I felt the point of consciousness that was myself growing wider, surrounded by waves of light. It grew wider and wider, spreading outward while the body, normally the immediate object of its perception, appeared to have receded into the distance until I became entirely unconscious of it. I was now all consciousness, without any outline, without any idea of a corporeal appendage, without any feeling or sensation coming from the senses, immersed in a sea of light simultaneously conscious and aware of every point, spread out, as it were, in all directions without any barrier or material obstruction. I was no longer myself, or to be more accurate, no longer as I knew myself to be, a small point of awareness confined in a body, but instead was a vast circle of consciousness in which the body was but a point, bathed in light and in a state of exaltation and happiness impossible to describe (Krishna, 13).
Gopi Krishna then goes on to debate about what his experience was, wondering if what happened to him was a hallucination or a genuine mystical experience. He eventually came to place his experience within the tradition of Kundalini ascension which was described in ancient Hindu texts. A later book called Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini (1995) by Darrel Irving features interviews with Gopi Krishna, and attempts to scientifically analyze the phenomenon of Kundalini. Several scholars have written books on the subject, including Sir John Woodroffe's 1974 text The Serpent Power. The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga, Mary Scott's 1983 book The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value and a collection of lectures from 1932 by Carl Jung called The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga (published in 1996). There are numerous other books in the New Age literature which mention Kundalini in various ways, usually by showing the chakras.
Philosophically, Kundalini occupies the somewhat curious metaphysical position of being a non-physical force which is located or mapped onto the physical body. In this sense, the system of Kundalini and the chakras is a scientific -- but bodily subjective -- process of exploring how energy interacts with matter. This practice is associated mythologically and cosmologically with the figures of the god Siva and goddess Shakti as the two necessary and balancing vital spiritual forces which combine to create material reality. Thus the Tantric worldview could be described in the context of Western philosophy as an Idealist view, wherein the immaterial energies of Shakti and the underlying structure of Siva, although themselves non-material, as thought to construct and give birth to the material world (9). According to some interpretations, Taoist alchemical practices were functioning according to similar philosophical assumptions (10). In Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini, Darrel Irving describes how “etheric” or “subtle” energy may be thought to interact with the human body in the philosophy of Kundalini.
The kundalini process occurs in what is sometimes called the etheric or subtle (nonphysical) body, although as will be demonstrated in chapter 4, this etheric body may actually be physical, composed of atoms and cells just like all other parts of the body. This subtle body is comprised of nerve fibers not visible to the naked eye. For the sake of visualizing this system, therefore, imagine these fibers as looking like all the nerves and ganglia of the nervous system, some as thin and spindly, others as thick and clustery, all of them radiating light, and branching out through the entire body, thousands of them. Their overall appearance in the body might be likened to the grid of electric lights one sees above a city at night. These nerve fibers are actually conduits. They are called Nadis; some are major, some are minor, and their function is to conduct currents of energy called prana, or vital force, throughout the body. Not only does this prana animate the body, but it is this force that can be controlled by the Yoga adept through various exercises, described below, to activate the kundalini (Irving, 10).
The kinds of exercises that Irving mentions involve cultivating breath control techniques, trance states, body postures, visualizations, and other elements of yoga. However, there are documented cases of people outside of the tradition of yoga or Hinduism experiencing something which can be interpreted as a Kundalini awakening (11).
Another aspect of the Kundalini energy that is important to understand is the fundamentally sexual nature of the Kundalini. The Kundalini energy is conceived as a generative force which carries some of the same connotations of the Freudian psychological concept of libido energy. When interpreting ancient religious ideas it may be difficult to discern between the elements of a texts that may be describing something literally, or metaphorically, or both. Certainly, though, the Kundalini energy has been interpreted as being closely associated with the material sexual fluids, most obviously male sperm (12). Thus non-ejaculation and redirection of sexual energy internally (also referred to as “reversal of sexual energy”) is one of the most crucial teachings of Kundalini sexual practices (13). The full development of Kundalini through the chakras is only possible if the sexual energy that arises is contained within, and not spilled in the form of external ejaculation. Spilling the sexual fluid is thought to result in a hastening of death and degeneration of the vitality of the subject (14).
Taoist alchemy, like Tantra and Kundalini yoga, is a term that describes a wide variety of practices that occurred over different eras of time. Also like Tantra, Taoist alchemy was an esoteric religious worldview as well as a set of ritual practices. The combination of philosophical and physical preparation—philosophically in the interpretation of ritual texts, and physically in the form of “elixirs” and physical exercises—facilitated the internal process of alchemical transformation resulting in a mystical state of awareness. This state is described in various ways symbolically and literally in the Taoist texts, often involving an illuminating light radiating from the head.
In the chapter entitled “Gathering the Microcosmic Inner Alchemical Agent” from the book Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality, author Lu K'uan Yu describes the alchemical process of gathering energy and breath internally which culminates with a “fire” which will “soar up to the brain” and manifest as a bright light between the eyes.
This chapter discusses the method of using the microcosmic inner fire that passes through sublimating phases at the cardinal points D and J (see figure 2 on page 13) to produce the (microcosmic) inner alchemical agent, which method is also called 'inner copulation' (nei chiao kou) meaning that after you have gathered enough of the (microcosmic) outer alchemical agent, true vitality, driven by ventilation and fire, will soar up to the brain; you should then roll your eyes from left to right in a complete circle in order to push vitality up and down so that the vital breath in the brain unites with the nervous system. At this stage the brain will develop fully and a bright light will manifest (between the eyes); you should now gather the (microcosmic) inner alchemical agent, this is commonly called the preparation of the golden elixir. This bright light is the mysterious gate (hsuan kuan) about which it is said: Your mouth cannot explain what appears before you; Seeing it you will be relieved of all concern (Yu, 63).
Lu K'uan Yu is translating the work of a contemporary Taoist master named Chao Pi Ch'en, a scripture originally titled The Secrets of Cultivating Essential Nature and Eternal Life (Hsin Ming Fa Chueh Ming Chih). In the preface he notes that he has translated the words lead and mercury, alchemical terms, into more accessible religious terms vitality and spirit, an act of textual re-interpretation (15). Like Kundalini, ancient Taoist rituals have sometimes been reinterpreted and re-imagined in contemporary practice.
According to Livia Kohn in her book Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality, “internal alchemy has been the dominant system of Daoist spiritual practice since the Song dynasty, when it was first defined as the complex integration of multiple forms of Daoist self-cultivation” (Kohn, 1). This included many different highly experimental practices, sometimes involving the ingestion of dangerous chemicals like mercury (16). When the elixirs were successful, the individual would often feel strange sensations and spiritual exaltation in a physiological experience not unlike modern descriptions of experiences with hallucinogenic drugs (17).
Like other methods of occult or magical practice, Taoist alchemy was a highly individualized pursuit and did not adhere to a single regimen or program, but rather a multitude of experimental methods were refined over time by individual practitioners. As Kohn writes, “the actual practice, moreover, actively combines the various forms of Daoist self-cultivation: guiding the qi, visualization, absorptive meditation, operative alchemy, and cosmological speculation (for conscious reorientation). However, this does not occur in a linear fashion, one after the next. Instead, adepts weave an intricate network, using the different modes in a spiraling, twisting, and ever turning movement” (Kohn, 1). This pursuit, like Western alchemy, occurred mostly at high levels of society and the practitioners were learned religious scholars. Many of the emperors themselves became quite enthusiastic about the idea of possessing immortality, and hired alchemists to come to court and try to extend the life and fortune of their dynasty. However the decline of the alchemical age came about at least partially as a result of the deaths of several emperors who drank (probably unintentionally) poisonous elixirs (18).
Taoist alchemy, like Kundalini, is based on the idea that there is an energetic or subtle component of the human body which can be manipulated in various ways. Like Kundalini, Taoist alchemy organizes the schemata of the energy body according into several sections which have various properties that can be related to the physical body. In Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry, by Dr. Chang Chung-yuan, the author relates one Taoist method of breath technique that bears some notable resemblance to the Hindu techniques of prana. Again, the idea is that by controlling internal energies such as breath and sexual fluids, an individual can capture and cultivate spiritual energy within themselves.
After a certain time and a degree of practice he may feel the circulation of the “breath” as a heat current. This heat current is set into motion by the technique of concentration. The practicioner may focus his attention on any one of the twelve centers to start the current. The chosen center may be ch'i- hai, or the sea of breath, below the navel, or wei-lu, the tip of the spine, or ming-t'ang, the hall of light between the eyes, or any other. It is common practice for men to concentrate on ch'i-hai, while women usually concentrate on t'ang-chung, the center of the chest. Ch'i-hai is the most important center, known as the regular field of the elixir. It is the lowest of the three fields of the elixir on the path of the grand circulation. The middle field of the elixir lies lies in the region of the heart, and the higher field of the elixir in the top of the head. It is said to be located in the middle of the nine sections of the brain and is known also as ni-wan or Nirvana. The region between the middle and the lower fields is named the yellow court, or the center of the Earth (Chung-yuan, 146).
The elixir fields are also called “cinnabar fields” after the element cinnabar which was used in alchemy, or dantian in Chinese. In this passage we witness the fascinating way in which Taoist religious exercises were encoded with a sense of cosmological meaning; the outer world, including geography, and the larger realms of cosmic and mythological meaning, are understood to be reflected internally within the human body. Lao Tzu advised his students to imagine themselves as Mount Kunlun. There Taoist are paintings of Mount Kunlun esoterically mapped with internal aspects of the human body, like a diagram (19).
Taoist alchemy has been a tradition in Chinese religious culture for the past thousand years. Chinese alchemy certainly rivals the tradition of European, and even Middle Eastern alchemy, in terms of the proliferation of texts, physical substances, beliefs, and rituals. Some practices and aesthetics of alchemy are still in use, as we see in texts like Taoist Yoga by Lu K'uan Yu and some modern Chinese meditative spiritual and/or physical exercises like Qigong. Now that a basic understanding of beliefs and practices of Taoist alchemy and Kundalini yoga have been established, we may attempt a brief comparison based on textual sources.
Similarities Between Taoist Alchemy and Kundalini Yoga
Both systems philosophically present a balanced duality of feminine and masculine energy as a symbolic structure of reality. In Taoism the symbol of yin and yang, is understood metaphorically to refer to yang as positive vitality and yin as negative entropy, which wax and wane and fluctuate as a person ages, “thus his positive (yang) vitality decreases gradually while the negative counterpart (yin) grows in proportion so that he becomes a mortal worldling (Yu, 18). Yes it is understood that these forces are balanced in the ultimate sense, which is represented visually in the familiar yinyang symbol called Taijitu. In Kundalini Tantra the duality of feminine and masculine energies is presented in the symbol of the god Siva and the goddess Shakti. Siva is thought to represent the unformed, unmanifest space or superstructure of reality, and Shakti is the energizing, animating force of energy which moves through and animates space in individual parts. Symbolically, this is represented in images of sexual union of the gods. One of the purposes of Tantric practice is to understand this seemingly dual, yet ultimately unified, esoteric symbolism.
Both systems present a knowledge of the human being, and human consciousness, as the result of a conjunction between an invisible energetic body or grid, and the outwardly visible material body. In Taoism this is represented with the three dantian or cinnabar fields, the meridians of energy, and the various locations which are described in the Taoist texts: the abdominal cavity, the navel, the tip of the spine, the center of the chest, and the regions behind the eyes in the center of the brain, and at the top of the head are of the most interest which are encoded with symbolic names like “the three Passes,” “the Yellow Court,” “the Yellow Chamber,” “the Gate of Destiny,” and “the Crystal Palace” as they have been alternately translated in texts (20). In Kundalini yoga the system of describing the human energy field is based on the chakras, the nadir points, and the movement of prana through the body in its proper circulation governed by breath techniques and yoga exercises. Coincidentally or not, the same areas which are of importance for the Chinese are generally regarded as the areas of chakras: the lower abdomen is Muladhara, the space below the navel is Svadhisthana, the lower chest is Manipura, the heart is Anahata, the throat is Visuddha, the brow or space behind the eyes is Ajna, and the top of the head is Sahasrara, as we see in John Woodroofe's translation of the texts Sat-Cakra-Nirupana, and the Padaka-Pancaka in his foundational academic work The Serpent Power.
Both systems strongly encourage the spiritual practitioner to conserve their subtle energy and/or sexual fluids. In Kundalini the conservation of sexual fluids is involved with the process of raising the Kundalini. However, sexual fluids, when excreted, are used in some Tantric rituals as transgressive objects (21). Taoist alchemy, and the larger tradition of Taoism on the whole, stresses the conservation of sexual energy and fluids as a major reason for a practitioner to be celibate (22).
Both systems involve the use of substances, in Tantra this is in the form of five forbidden substances which are ritually used. In Taoist alchemy many chemical substances and the resulting elixirs are used. In both cases the substances are generally thought to be a physical means of inducing mystical experience.
Both systems describe that the ultimate culmination of spiritual progress involves a release or transmutation of internally gathered spiritual energy through the top of the head. In Taoist alchemy this happens when the qi energy moves upward through the “Gate of Heaven” or “Crystal Palace” and illuminates the area behind the eyes, and then is partially released or gathered at the top of the head (23). In Kundalini yoga, the Kundalini energy moves up through the chakras, resting in the various chakras as meditative power and concentration progresses, finally resting in the space behind the eyes, the Ajna chakra, and then being released out through the Sahasrara or crown chakra.
Differences Between Kundalini Yoga and Taoist Alchemy
Kundalini, as it is situated in the larger realm of Tantra, is involved with intentionally transgressive acts. The use of the five forbidden substances in Tantra is done in a ritual setting, with the idea that transgressing against social norms of behavior will help a yogi become liberated from the realm of illusion while alive. In Taoist alchemy there is not so much a sense of social transgression, as there is a sense of experimental curiosity.
Socially, alchemy was a lot more respectable than Kundalini Tantra. Emperors and wealthy people were very interested in alchemy, whereas the folk magic of Tantra is traditionally seen as a fringe activity in Indian social circles.
The iconographies and symbolism of each tradition are different. In Taoism Lao Tzu tells the Taoist adept to imagine themselves like Mount Kunlun and the yingyang (24). In Kundalini, the focus of symbolism is more on the figures of the two gods, Siva and Shakti, and the two original people, Purusha and Prakriti (25).
The tradition of Kundalini yoga is probably older, and may be based on the earlier Vedic society. Chinese alchemy was developed later, and was probably influenced by Middle Eastern alchemy rather than Vedic civilization.
The practices and techniques vary greatly. For example the Taoists do an advanced visualization meditation about reversing the aging process and putting spiritual energy into the formation of an “immortal fetus” (26). Taoists were more interested in chemical substances than the Kundalini yogis. Taoist rituals were more abstracted, and intentionally encoded with symbolism to make them esoteric, which is less true of Kundalini.
A Biological Basis for Mystical Experience: the Pineal Gland?
This comparison leaves us with a brief impression of some of the similarities and differences between Hindu yoga and Chinese alchemy. If we judge the phenomenological experiences of the rising of Kundalini through prana control, and the focusing of qi energy with meditative breathing, to be exceptionally similar in some important ways, we may further ask what sort of basis there might be that could explain this similarity. Obviously one area to look is in the makeup of human biology. A few authors have explored this subject, although it remains at the level of tentative comparative theory.
For example, medical doctor Rick Strassman, who conducted controlled studies of dimethyltriptamine (DMT) and the interaction of the pineal gland with the religious mystical experience, in DMT: the Spirit Molecule he writes:
Western and Eastern mystical traditions are replete with descriptions of a blinding bright white light accompanying deep spiritual realization. This “enlightenment” usually is the result of a progression of consciousness through various levels of spiritual, psychological, and ethical development. All mystical traditions describe the process and its stages. In Judaism, for example, consciousness moves through the sefirot, or Kabbalistic centers of spiritual development, the highest being Keter, or Crown. In the Eastern Ayurvedic tradition, these centers are called chakras, and particular experiences likewise accompany the movement of energy through them. The highest chakra is also called the Crown, or the Thousand Petaled Lotus. In both traditions, the location of this Crown sefira or chakra is the center and top of the skull, anatomically corresponding to the human pineal gland (Strassman, 58).
Strassman goes on to explain what the pineal gland is. The pineal gland has the unique distinction of being the only part of the human brain which is not dualistically paired. There is a right and left hemisphere, right and left cerebrums, etc. but the pineal gland is un-paired. It is interesting, then, to consider that the Hindu iconography representing the “third eye” of the gods (Siva, for example, was also called Tri-lochana, meaning three-eyed) emphasizes the third eye's unification of sight, beyond dualism into a single vision, the truth burning away illusion. Strassman, however, in his analysis would equate the pineal gland with the Sahasrara chakra rather than the Ajna chakra. Strassman's theory is that the pineal gland produces DMT, a powerful psychoactive chemical which can cause intense hallucinations. This might help explain why mystics of various traditions have been so interested in that particular region of the interior body and have described visionary experiences when that area of the body is activated.
In the self-published book The Biology of Kundalini: A Science and Protocol of Spiritual Alchemy, author Jana Dixon speculates about the role of the pineal gland in Taoist and Tibetan practices.
The main function of the pineal gland is its role in mediating circadian rhythms of the animal through the production of the hormone melatonin, from its precursor amino acid tryptophan. The pineal gland is most active in early morning hours... hence meditation is often undergone at this time. The pineal gland is the only singular organ in the brain and is located near the upper end of the spinal cord, which ends or terminates in the oldest anatomical region in the brain. Taoists call the center of the brain between the pineal and the pituitary "the Crystal Palace." It's between the old brain at the back and the new brain at the front of the head, between the left and right hemispheres, sitting above the two wings of the mysterious ventricles. It rests between the two large cerebrums at the anterior end of the cerebellum. The cerebellum is one of the oldest features of the brain, involved in coordinating muscular activity in the body. It's said that when the pineal gland is activated it becomes illuminated like a thousands suns. The sense of white light flowing within and without may be when the pineal gland is highly activated producing DMT type chemistry during the height of the peak (Dixon).
There are other traditions which might also be involving the same biological processes. Daniel Pinchbeck's book Breaking Open the Head describes an initiation in which some African tribes drill a hole into the very top of their heads, which in their tradition is supposed to allow for a greater spiritual experience (27). According to some modern interpretations of Zoroastrianism, the turban worn by ancient Zarathustrians was worn for the specific purpose of shielding the pineal gland, called Aipi.
There is a constant friction near the pineal gland, on account of the incessant onslaught of the cosmic rays, which enters at various points of the astral body, one of them being near the first Centre or Chakhra. Thus there is an unending clash of vibrations around the pineal gland, if one's head is uncovered. If the head is covered preferably with a headgear, made of white cotton, the friction is reduced to a minimum and the Aipi remains unpolluted. The pineal gland power is developed by Kharenangh (aura, glory) which is the product of spiritual acts (prayers, participating in religious ceremonies), contribution to social and religious activities and Practicing (Tarikats) tenets of our religion in daily life (Bhadha).
Could it be that such traditions are similar in their descriptions of the “third eye” or this area at the top of the head because they are relating the same basic spiritual biology, a fundamental metaphysical energy system of the human body? Obviously such a brief study does not prove any conclusive assertions, but it is interesting nonetheless to consider these possibilities in light of what is known about modern science, and the biological curiosity of the pineal gland in forming human perception.
Taoist alchemy and Kundalini yoga, in their respective ways, are religious traditions based on an imperative of rational, yet creative, experimentation with the relationship of the internal body to objects in the outside world, and the relationship of human physical energy with the abstracted realms of religious symbolism and ontological beliefs. Both systems present a picture which is not entirely comprehensive by the methods and assumptions of modern science. Yet these types of traditions may have something useful to teach us, if we can analyze their beliefs and practices within the historical and cultural context in an effort to understand them as they were, and as they are, within their individual cultural framework. Scientific methods such as neurobiology can give us some insight into the basic underlying causes of human experience, yet will never be able to fully explain the phenomenological idiosyncrasies of religious ritual. With this in mind, we can apply the knowledge of modern science to the study of ancient religious in a responsible and realistic way.
1. Scott, Mary. The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value. Fremont, California: Jain Publishing Company (2006) 107.
2. Kohn, Livia. Taoist Mystical Philosophy: the Scripture of Western Ascension. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press (1991) 92.
3. The esoteric sexual symbolism of tantra is described in the introduction to The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (1996). A Taoist view of sexual fluids is given in Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009) 6.
4. Strassman, Rick. DMT the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Rochester, Vermont. Park Street Press (2001) 59.
5. Irving, Darrel. Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc. (1995) 66.
6. Scott, Mary. The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value. Fremont, California: Jain Publishing Company (2006) 128.
7. Irving, Darrel. Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc. (1995) 83.
8. Scott, Mary. The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value. Fremont, California: Jain Publishing Company (2006) 2.
9. Ibid., 22.
10. Chung-yuan, Chang. Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry. New York: Julian Press (1965) 65.
11. Irving, Darrel. Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc. (1995) 35.
12. Ibid., 148.
14. Ibid., 152.
15. Yu, Lu K'uan. Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. (1973) xii.
16. Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009) 18.
19. Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009) 43.
20. As found in Yu, Lu K'uan. Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. (1973) and Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009).
21. Jung, Carl. The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (1996) xxiii.
22. Yu, Lu K'uan. Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. (1973) 8.
23. Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009) 37.
24. Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009) 43.
25. Scott, Mary. The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value. Fremont, California: Jain Publishing Company (2006) 65.
26. Yu, Lu K'uan. Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. (1973) 151.
27. Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. New York: Broadway Books (2002).
Bhadha, Hoshang J. “Effect of Wearing Cap on Zarathustri Urvaan.” Tenets of Zoroastrianism. May 5, 2010. Web. <http://tenets.zoroastrianism.com/topi33.html>
Chung-yuan, Chang. Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry. New York: Julian Press (1965).
Dixon, Jana. Biology of Kundalini. May 5, 2010. Web. <http://www.biologyofkundalini.com/>
Irving, Darrel. Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc. (1995).
Jung, Carl. The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (1996).
Kohn, Livia and Wang, Robin R., ed. Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdelena, New Mexico: Three Pines Press (2009).
Kohn, Livia. Taoist Mystical Philosophy: the Scripture of Western Ascension. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press (1991).
Krishna, Gopi. Kundalini: the Evolutionary Energy in Man. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications (1967).
Scott, Mary. The Kundalini Concept: Its Origin and Value. Fremont, California: Jain Publishing Company (2006).
Strassman, Rick. DMT the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Rochester, Vermont. Park Street Press (2001).
Woodroofe, John. The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga. London: Dover Publications (1974).
Yu, Lu K'uan. Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc. (1973).
Image by Nathan Jogewaard, courtesy of Creative Commons license.